If you enjoy a good piece of fish from your local seafood restaurant or store, you’ll love spearing your own fish. The taste can get no better as the fish is the absolute freshest. You get the fun of being underwater, and believe it or not, spearfishing is one of the more environmentally friendly ways to harvest from the sea. There is no wasted “by-catch,” you gain more satisfaction from one fish because it is the freshest, and because you are preparing your own catch you can use the fish to its maximum.
This summer will be a good time to try your hand at spearfishing. With the kelp having made a good recovery in the last few years, some fish populations are strong, especially those good for the beginning underwater hunter.
With the choice of becoming a spearfisher comes other choices—free-diving or scuba, what gear, and just what kind of fish you are going to pursue.
Free-diving or scuba? Many feel that free-diving (the use of mask and snorkel only, and breath-hold diving only, no scuba) is the only, and best, way to spear fish. If you want to advance to the most highly desired game fish, free -diving is where you’ll want to start and stay. It affords you the degree of stealth necessary to hunt white sea bass, yellowtail and other fish of this nature. Free-diving also has a larger degree of sport and challenge. Many hard-core free-divers (reformed from scuba) also report a stronger bond with the sea in this freer, more pure form of underwater venture.
But you do need to be in condition, not massively so, but in reasonable physical shape. It’s more a mental conditioning than anything. Key is relaxation. There is also a breathing technique but the ability to relax is important.
Wear dark or blue streamlined gear. Learn to dive and move through the water in graceful, smooth movements. Make sure your gear is not a source of a stray bubble as this will scare skittish fish.
Spearfishing with scuba is still widely accepted in California and a good way to start. No special diving skills are needed other than a basic certification, although an advanced certification will make you more comfortable in the water and hence a better hunter.
Spearguns, spear tips and accessories are like tools. As a beginner, you’ll want a tool that will fit your skill level, yet still be useful even as an advanced hunter. You would not hand a child a power saw. For the same reasons as a beginner you have no business with a large, powerful gun. You would not know how to use it, lack the skills to stalk the fish for which it was intended, and could damage an expensive gun or, worse, hurt yourself or others. Your first quarry will be small to medium in size, something relatively common, and easy to approach.
Pole spears are the ideal first-time tool for the beginner spearfisher. Pole spears are simply a rubber band one end of a long pole and a spearmint at the other. They are cocked and fired by pulling the band tight, gripping the pole, and releasing the spear at the desired target. They are inexpensive, simple, lack moving parts, yet are surprisingly versatile and can take on a variety of game fish. They are, however, short ranged and not for large fish. Travel pole spears pack neatly into dive bags. Most pole spears come with a three-point “paralyzer” tip, good for fish up to about five pounds. Get a pole spear with an interchangeable point. With a different head you can pursue slightly heavier game like halibut.
After a pole spear consider a short to medium length speargun. Banded are preferred by most California divers for their ruggedness. Pneumatic guns have an edge in accuracy but are mechanically sophisticated and prone to failure if not handled lightly or maintained meticulously. A two-banded gun will accomplish what you want as a beginner, but a three band gun is okay, too.
Whether a gun has a wood or metal barrel is irrelevant for beginners and short guns. Wood is more expensive, but is generally quieter and floats after fired, both considerations for the more serious underwater hunter stalking larger, more skittish game. If you are going to be purchasing a medium size gun, consider a wood gun. They are enjoyable just for the beauty in craftsmanship and elegance of wood.
For spearguns, as a beginner, if you own just one type of spear tip, make it a rock point. A rock point is designed to be used in and around reefs. It is heavy bodied, conical in shape, and designed to take accidental impacts on rocks. As a beginner you will, unfortunately, be doing that a lot. It’s also a good point for the type of fish you will first be stalking. Even if you hit your mark, odds are the point will impact on a rock. Other points can be added to your collection, each with a different purpose, as you expand on your skills.
The only other gear you will need is a way to contain your fish in the water; a clip-style stringer is best, and a filet knife.
As a beginner, you will be concentrating on the best tasting abundant fish that hang around reefs or near the bottom. Fish that usually sit still are the easiest to start with and include rockfish and lingcod. Fish and game regulations have changed, and continue to change on these fish, so make sure you fully understand current limits, seasons, areas of closure, etc.
A good beginner fish is sheephead. They move around some but are easily approached. Cook them lightly for an excellent flavor. Shoot only larger fish (12 inches is now the legal minimum size). Big sheephead, particularly the large males, can be difficult to approach and will put up a powerful fight when speared.
Calico bass are a more challenging quarry with the larger fish requiring the stealth approach of free-diving. Legal minimum size is 12 inches. Another good choice is cousin to the calico bass, the barred sand bass. They are more abundant in some areas, mainly over sand, and are slightly easier to approach. Both of these fish are excellent eating.
And finally, halibut is a good quarry for beginners. They are harder to find, and will take to a quick, sharp eye, but if spotted on the bottom before they have a chance to bolt you will have a good shot at a satisfying dinner. And the big fish will put up a challenging struggle.
Key to success is practice. Use floating targets, weighted to the bottom, in the legal size, shape and coloration or the species you desire, and head to your local beach or pool (careful!) and shoot away. The best “kill shot” is placed directly behind the gill through the meatiest part of the fish. For halibut, make a cut out in minimum legal size that can lay on the bottom. Practice on a beach dive with a sandy bottom.
CODE OF THE RESPONSIBLE HUNTER
Only shoot what you know and know how to clean it and cook it. Eat all you shoot. Do not shoot any more than you or your family can consume in one day. Fish flavor and quality does not do well with age, even frozen, so do not “stock up.” Spear fish only on reefs abundant with the species of fish you are seeking.